Archives, imagination and social value

I’m currently working in the American Geographical Society Library archives at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee as part of my Woodward Fellowship in the History of Cartography.

If you’ve worked much with archives you’ll be familiar with the very natural enquiry, expressed in different ways, but essentially asking if you found anything interesting that day. This reflects an attitude about archives, and one I’ve often held myself, that sees them as mines from which one can extract a nugget, or “smoking gun” document. So-and-so was a racist! This guy knew that guy! They secretly worked for X!

A consequence of this is that archives are like slag heaps, or 99 per cent dross. Certainly reading through endless letters arranging trips, apologising for missing meetings, or reports full of long-forgotten rainfall statistics, or number of hours worked, etc etc. can lead you very naturally to this conclusion. Especially given that these files haven’t been looked at for decades and probably won’t be again, unless a document were to be identified as a nugget. This might be called the researcher’s view.

I’ve been thinking about this however, and this doesn’t seem correct. What makes something interesting? First of all, I don’t think the opposite view is correct either: that all the documents are valuable. This is something like the archivists view. After all, why do we not only preserve “the” archive, but take pain and expense to acquire it (which might mean driving papers across country, buying first class seats on airplanes for 15th century maps, being detained at border crossings because you were wrongly accused of taking papers without permission–all stories I’ve heard over the years about the archives I’m working in now), employing a staff, paying rent on a building, processing, accessioning, cataloging, storing in acid-free folders, creating finding aids, battling other parts of the library for space, dealing with trustees, etc.

The answer is, I take it, because the archive has value; either in and of itself (value inheres to the documents, especially as a collection where one can read something against another document) or because something might be seen as interesting later on (you never know!). I used to be somewhat like this, keeping 15 year old video tapes from my Masters in the attic, my grad school notes from 1985 with Peter Gould, but over the last couple of years I’ve thrown a lot of paper away. (I still have the Peter Gould spatial stats notes.) In my office I’m now down to less than 2 drawers of papers and say 15 linear feet of books on the shelves. (Thankfully, as we’re moving floors of our building and I had to box everything up.)

I try not to accumulate new papers, so that notes from meetings etc are scanned in with my Fuji ScanSnap scanner (one of the best values for money around), this goes right into pdf with OCR and then into EverNote. I think it takes two clicks. Older notes were gradually scanned into pdfs with short titles (for searching purposes, so eg “Elden on Confession EPD” or whatever) and into a hierarchical file structure, old papers were tossed and d/l as pdfs to replace any I wanted to keep.

But what is it that makes something valuable or interesting? Should we keep everything? How does value accrue? Do I need Nietzsche’s note that he forgot his umbrella?

If indeed we follow the Derrida line of reasoning and see everything in a play of difference, a network, it would still be necessary I think to examine (with Foucault) why certain relationships, or documents, can come to matter and not others. This is at heart a historical argument, which is why a genealogy is necessary.

But this coming to be is not at all passive, or structural, or because of power/knowledge. It’s interesting to speculate, somewhat similarly with the nature-culture view in anthropology, that beings (or in this case the value of beings) are simultaneously inherent properties but also within larger contexts. (This might align with object oriented ontology, I don’t know.) So a document can be made to be interesting, but it’s easier to do this with some documents than others.

So I think we sometimes forget the part of why something is interesting, which is that we have to use creativity and imagination to make something interesting. This is often overlooked by students for example, who expect material to be interesting without having to do any work to make it interesting. This is an attitude that we often use to separate good students; their style of study or reasoning is that they are prepared to find something interesting.

So as I think about the thousands of pages of documents I photographed and whether any of them are interesting, that’s quite a daunting question, because I think of the challenge of imagination I need to face in order to see what I have as interesting. This is perhaps what it means to be an academic, not just in the social sciences, but probably others too. (It’s given to very few of us to be truly smart.)



3 responses to “Archives, imagination and social value

  1. Excellent post, Jeremy. It makes sense and helps put my past month here at the AGS Library in perspective. This is why I feel like a kid in candy store at this library, whereas my spouse cannot imagine sitting in a windowless room taking photos of maps and scanning them all day. It’s the excitement of creativity…

  2. Timothy Barney

    Thanks for the great post (and the excellent blog). I was just at the AGS Library a few weeks ago looking at the Atlas of Disease collection, and that whole project is an interesting study in what archives both reveal/conceal.

  3. I looked at the Atlas of Disease on a previous visit in 2004. I’d be interested in what you find.

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